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The 2019 Asian Champions League (ACL) gets underway tonight with Australia's two participants, Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC, carrying the hopes not just of their clubs and fans, but also the A-League.

According to reports, Australia's places in the ACL is once again under review with the relatively poor performance of Australian teams a reason for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to look at how many automatic positions Australia is granted. Currently it is two, which go to the A-League premiers and champions, with the next best team able to take part in play-offs for a third spot. Since joining the tournament in 2007, FFA has also lobbied for an automatic third position. 

Australia has provided both a winner and runner-up in the ACL in the 12 years we have taken part.

In 2008, Adelaide United went all the way to the final where they lost to Gamba Osaka from Japan; and, in 2014, Western Sydney Wanderers were crowned champions after defeating Al-Hilal of Saudi Arabia.

Melbourne Victory kicks-off their campaign at 7.30pm tonight at AAMI Park against Daegu FC from (South) Korea, while Sydney FC open their campaign against Ulsan Hyundai at Jubilee Stadium at 8pm on Wednesday night.

Football Today looks at both groups and assesses the Australian teams' chances.

Group F

  • Daegu FC, South Korea
  • Guangzhou Evergrande, China
  • Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Japan
  • Melbourne Victory, Australia

AAMI Park: Melbourne Victory's ACL home (photo: AFC)

Daegu FC was originally a community club formed in 2002, and is generally placed about mid-table in the top division of Korean football. They qualified for the ACL in 2019 as the winners of the Korean FA Cup, but finished the regular season in seventh place. They have played only one game so far in this season's K.League for a draw. Coached by Brazilian André, they also have three Brazilians in the squad headlined by 32-year-old striker Edgar (who last year played with Thai team Buriram United), as well as Dario da Silva and Cesinha. This is their first appearance in the ACL.

Guangzhou Evergrande are early favourites to top this group, having won it in 2013 and 2015 and being such regular participants (this is their ninth apperance). They also have to deal with high expectations from their big money backers of the Evergrande Real Estate group and Alibaba. They are coached by Italian 2006 World Cup winner, Fabio Cannavaro, and their squad includes two Brazilians, Paulinho (who has played 56 games for Brazil) and Talisca; 24-year-old former Everton Academy graduate Tyias Browning; and Korean Park Ji-soo, who has so far earned one cap with the South Korean national team. Guangzhou bowed-out of last year's competition at the round of 16 losing on away goals to Tianjin. They qualified in 2019 as runners-up in the Chinese Super League. 

Sanfrecce Hiroshima is another side expected to do well. Coached by Hiroshi Jofuku, they were runners-up in last year's J.League, and in their two starts so far this year, have had draws from two games. Of most interest from an Australian perspective is one of their visa players - the one and only Besart Berisha, a former A-League champion with both Melbourne Victory and Brisbane Roar. Other visa players with Hiroshima include Swedish international Emil Salomonsson and a trio of Brazilians led by 31-year-old Patric, as well as midfielder Rhayner and Douglas Vieira. This is Hiroshima's fifth appearance in the ACL, their most recent being in 2016 where they did not get out of the group stage. 

Melbourne Victory are another experienced side in the competition, this being their seventh appearance. Like Hiroshima, they have not previously managed to go beyond the round of 16. With super stars such as Keisuke Honda and Ola Toivonen, and a host of quality players, 2019 may well be their best chance to improve on their past performances. As has been documented elsewhere and previously in relation to Australian sides in the ACL, the challenge for coaches is to manage the demands of both the ACL and the A-League with a small A-League squad, the travel, and generally, but not always much wealthier opposition. Having said that, with seven ACL apperances under their belt, Melbourne Victory should have these aspects down pat. 

Tip

  • Melbourne Victory and Guangzhou Evergrande to progress beyond the group stage.

Group H

  • Kawasaki Frontale, Japan
  • Shanghai SIPG, China
  • Ulsan Hyundai, South Korea
  • Sydney FC, Australia

Jubilee Stadium: Sydney FC's ACL home (photo: AFC)

Kawasaki Frontale are the 2018 J.League champions, but have started off the 2019 season in indifferent form with two draws. They can be expected to step-up a gear for the ACL and only improve as their domestic season continues in parallel with the 2019 ACL. Coached by Toru Oniki, who also spent most of his playing career with the side, the team's only notable visa player includes former Brazil international Leandro Damião. This is their seventh apperance in the ACL. 

Shanghai SIPG is another powerhouse of Chinese football, rated the third richest football club in China according to Forbes magazine. They qualified for the ACL this year as Chinese Super League winners in 2018, and will make their fifth appearance. Coached by Vitor Pereira from Portgual, they boast the big Brazilian three of Oscar, Elkeson and Hulk who is captain: big in terms of their playing capacity and how much they are paid. They dipped out at the round of 16 in the 2018 ACL to eventual winners, Kashima Antlers. Their previous best was the semi-finals in 2017, where they lost to Urawa Red Diamonds, who also went on to win that year's ACL competition. 

Ulsan Hyundai is another club with billionaire backing, in the form of Hyundai Heavy Industries which is chaired by former FIFA Executive Committee member and former AFC Presidential aspirant, Dr Mong-Joon Chung. Ulsan Hyundai is packed with South Korean players, most notably Lee Keun-ho who is an 84 game veteran of the national team, and Kang Min-soo who has 33 national team caps to his name. Ulsan's visa players include Dave Bulthuis from the Netherlands and Manchester City loan player, American Mix Diskerud. Ulsan is coached by Kim Do-Hoon, who also played 72 times for the national team and who is no stranger to Asian club competition, having been named highest goalscorer in the 2004 edition. The club won the tournament in 2012. Ulsan Hyundai qualified this year via their third placing in the 2018 K.League.

Sydney FC has failed to make much of an impression in the ACL in any of their four previous attempts, even though they were runaway premiers in the A-League in 2016-17 which qualified them for last year's competition. Their best was the round of 16 in 2016, where they missed out on away goals. They finished last year's group stage in third position on six points with just one win. Steve Corica will be aiming and hoping to do better by getting out of the group stage but, of the two Australian teams, Sydney FC has the harder task. With 21 rounds of the 2018-19 A-League played, Sydney FC sit in a comfortable second position without ever having looked as dominant against A-League opponents as they have in the prevous two seasons; unless they can step up some notches, they may struggle in this company. 

Tip

  • Football Today does not like the phrase 'group of death' but if such a thing exists, this is it. Sorry Sydney, but Kawasaki Frontale and Shanghai SIPG to progress beyond the group stage.

Categories: Analysis | Asia

asian champions league, sydney fc, melbourne victory, #aclcl2019

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